Richebourg – Sonorous Name, Sonorous Wine

Richbourg vineyards

Raymond Blake comments on the different style of wine descriptors with reference to Richebourg while describing the DRC wine he tasted

I have been buying the annual Hugh Johnson Pocket Wine Book for about 35 years, always marvelling at how much information was and is packed between its slim covers. It has been my goto reference book for all my working life. Granted, it has expanded in recent years but brevity, with no dilution of authority, is still its calling card. Thus I felt challenged and chuffed in equal parts when General Editor, Margaret Rand, commissioned me to take on the role of Burgundy Contributor a few years ago.

Brevity was, and remains, the challenge. I am happy to write and talk at length about most wines and regions but to distil some wisdom into a pithy comment was a new challenge, calling to mind the insightful quip: “Forgive me for writing a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one,” variously attributed to Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain and my fellow countryman, George Bernard Shaw. Apologies don’t get more memorable.

With that in mind, I set myself a test: could I paint a verbal picture and capture the essence of one of Burgundy’s most celebrated Grands Crus — Richebourg — in just a few words? After much dither and delay — struggling to write a short letter — I settled on, “Sonorous name, sonorous wine,” padded out with some more prosaic descriptors. I felt satisfied but also slightly frustrated, I had captured it, yes, but did it do justice to one of the most commanding of all wines? Probably not, which is why it is such a joy to have adequate space here to tell the Richebourg tale, as it were, with particular reference to a quartet of vintages, all from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, recently drunk with a group of like-minded Burgundy lovers.

The vineyard itself stretches to 8.03 hectares of which DRC holds the lion’s share, 3.51 hectares, spread across five plots. The eight hectares actually comprise two lieux dits, (named places), Les Richebourgs and Les Veroilles ou Richebourgs, the former running to a tad over five hectares, while the latter stops just short of three.

Richebourg is contiguous with king-of-thecastle Romanée-Conti. Move just a few paces past the cross that marks that esteemed vineyard and you come to Richebourg. It is barely possible to be certain where one ends and the other begins unless you have an app such as ClimaVinea on your smartphone to tell you your precise location every step of the way. It is a point well noted by Richard Olney in his 1995 book, Romanée-Conti — The World’s Most Fabled Wine.

Having written, “Romanée Saint-Vivant is flirtatious,” Olney goes on to consider its senior sibling: “Richebourg, although perhaps less diversified, with greater  power and less nuance, is closer in spirit to Romanée-Conti than the other growths; they are separated only by a footpath, the sentier des Raignots… In fact Romanée-Conti has one foot planted on the Richebourg side of the path. In the last century, Dr Morelot noted that the two growths would be of the same quality were it not that part of ‘les Richebourgs’ reached up steeper slopes.”

Notwithstanding that minor final caveat, Richebourg sits today at the top of the Burgundy quality tree, only definitively surpassed by the two DRC monopoles and rivalled by the likes of its neighbours La Romanée and Romanée Saint-Vivant, as well as others that lie a little further away, such as Chambertin and Musigny. In truth no more than a handful of other vineyards are as exalted as Richebourg. It was a true privilege to drink and enjoy this quartet of wines, moving back and forth between the glasses of each, revelling in the unfolding array of flavours that seemed endless. From first beguiling sniff to last satisfying sip they delivered a marvellous sensory experience akin to, though perhaps not quite as profound as, a String Quartet from Beethoven. And finally… Say ‘Reeshboor’ with only a faint hint of that final ‘g’. Sonorous name, sonorous wine.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Richebourg Grand Cru 1954
A long and bitter winter was followed by a more benign spring and then the rains came in summer. Everything ran late and the harvest didn’t begin until early October. After this difficult season a late burst of good weather saved the vintage in terms of quantity, quality was already compromised. According to Jacky Rigaux: “The crop was generous but the quality was average.” That is the generally agreed assessment of 1954 but, as I always aver, generalisations and Burgundy go together like oil and water.

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If any wine runs counter to that dismissive opinion, it is this one. Tasted late last year, as it approached its 70th birthday, it was frail but not fragile. The flavour was still ‘valid’, centred on delicious, lacy fruit, pure and singing its way into a fresh and enduring finish. Like an old soldier it was still upright, able to draw the shoulders back and stand to attention, even if the robust energy of youth was but a memory. Compelling and delicious.

Historical context Germany were the surprise winners of the soccer World Cup, beating the more favoured Hungarian team in the final. Abdul Nasser seized power in Egypt.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Richebourg Grand Cru 1976
Heat and drought were the twin calling cards of this vintage. Summer 1976 was exceptionally hot across Europe and in Burgundy the grapes baked on the vines, developing thick skins that fermented into dense colours and strident tannins. Would the tannins ever soften, and if they did would they reveal ripe fruit or vacancy on the palate, was a question oft-repeated by critics.

Early notes about this wine made much mention of its concentration and structure, tasting terms such as ‘elegance’ and ‘harmony’ were shelved in the hope that someday they might prove apposite. With this bottle they did. Predictably, it was more vigorous, with greater amplitude and length than the 1954, the gaps in the lighter weave of the older wine filled now by sweeter, more sumptuous fruit. And yes, there was elegance and there was harmony, with vigour added by the whispering tannins in the background where once they dominated the foreground.

Historical context The United States of America celebrated 200 years of independence. Apple was founded on 1st April by college dropouts Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Richebourg Grand Cru 2006
Jumping forward 30 years we moved into the 21st century and a vintage that will forever labour in the shadow of its storied predecessor, 2005, which was crowned as ‘vintage of the century’ almost as soon as fermentation was complete. Winter was cold and spring was wet. Summer was generally good, with July particularly hot and dry, though the month ended with a vicious hailstorm in Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny. Ripening was variable – this was a vintage that rewarded the diligent and dedicated winemakers who took the trouble to adjust their approach to what each vineyard was giving them.

More than ever the golden rule of ‘producer, producer, producer’ — who made the wine — applied in 2006 and if this bottle is an indicator, the team at DRC applied a dextrous hand when harnessing Richebourg’s potential. The wine was a little closed when first poured but after 30 minutes in the glass it expanded and developed, adding layers and nuances of flavour to the initially slightly brusque profile. Fruit and tannin were joined by a haunting whiff of sweet spice that endowed great complexity and enduring attraction. Another decade in the cellar can only improve it further.

Historical context Pluto was downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet; Google purchased YouTube for US$1.65 billion. Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Richebourg Grand Cru 2012
After the abundance and quality of 2009, this was the third small harvest in succession. Every manner of challenge was thrown at les vignerons during the growing season as the weather oscillated wildly from benign to sinister. It wasn’t much better during the late September harvest, as I recorded in my diary on Wednesday 26th: “A miserable day on the Côte d’Or. Rain. Rain. Rain. Never ending. The hills, from the mid slope up, are swaddled in rain-laden cloud. It could hardly get any lower. Even Volnay, lovely Volnay, looks miserable, rain streaked and soaked.”

And yet… Good quality grapes were harvested, just not very many of them. This wine, only just into its second decade, displayed all the substance and structure for which Richebourg is renowned. The nose surged from the glass, replete with beguiling scents and aromas. This was followed by a lavish palate that delivered a marvellous symphony of flavours: abundant rich fruit, civil tannins and lively acidity. And then it  all resolved into a finish that lingered and lingered. A magnificent wine, with decades ahead of it yet.

Historical context London hosted a universally lauded celebration of the Olympic Games; the blot of Brexit still lay some years in the future.